OBITUARY | Abdul Bhamjee: 'Mr Soccer' left the game too soon

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RIP (File)
RIP (File)

He was known as Mr Soccer when his innovative administrative skills and expertise revolutionised South African professional soccer into a vibrant, non-racial phenomenon in the 1980s.

Charismatic, cherubic and astute Abdul Bhamjee died this week at the age of 82 - but in soccer terms the tragedy of his departure as the guiding, outspoken and scheming influence in what was initially known as the NPSL and then became the NSL was that, in the circumstances, it took place 30 years too soon.

The reason? He was charged with fraud regarding an amount of R7 million NSL sponsorship in 1991, found guilty and while an initial proclaimed sentence of six to seven years was greatly reduced - and he proclaimed his innocence claiming the money was in lieu of time spent away from his sports goods business - it meant, to all intents and purposes, the premature end of his career as a soccer administrator.

It was a personal tragedy, but also a tragedy for South African soccer, with Bhamjee's expertise lost so early and no one quite like him emerging as a replacement to fill his shoes to this day.

One critic labelled Bhamjee in the prevailing circumstances "a soccer Robin Hood." But he was a lot more than that and standing out as his monumental achievement was coming up with the idea of constructing the magnificent Soccer City Stadium and laying the foundation for the ground which was to go on to host the 2010 World Cup final that was won by Spain in front of a 94 000-strong crowd.

Prior to this Bhamjee, whose title of PRO concealed his overriding power base, had also negotiated for major soccer to be played at the Ellis Park rugby stadium - and no one who was there will forget how almost 100 000 spectators squeezed into a stadium meant for 67 000, with the crowd seated almost up to the touchlines and Bhamjee circling the ground himself and directing the people like the conductor of a massive orchestra.

He also spearheaded the switch of the NPSL to the renamed NSL in order for the professional organisation not to be shackled by SAFA - while planning all the time for a return to the national controlling body under a more independent arrangement  

On approaching his sports equipment business in Fordsburg on one occasion I came across a crowd completely circling around the block in which the building was situated.

An enquiry as to who the people were drew the response that "Abdul is just handing out loaves of bread to the poor - which he does regularly."

A visit to the Diepkloof Prison when Bhamjee was ensconced there for a while found the one-time soccer boss more like the warden than anything else - while even organising a soccer league for the inmates!

Bhamjee was more than a sports administrator and he had a deep insight on how to play the game himself. Ironically as an active performer his passion was cricket and he represented the South African Federation team as an immovable opening batsman before he became embroiled in soccer and battling against the scourge of apartheid through the Federation as well. 

Sadly it all ended too soon in 1991.

Being the fighter that he was, he recovered from a massive stroke at the turn of the century when he was given only a 20% chance of surviving and lived amid a contrasting lack of publicity.

But Bhamjee reportedly suffered from cancer in recent years and now the man who left too early is gone for good.

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